From the Gospel according to Matthew:
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 26:69-75 (NRSV) – July 24, 2014)
Traveling in Palestine recently, I was accompanied by a priest who had formerly been a Benedictine monk. In religious life, he had taken the name “Peter” and adopted St. Peter the Apostle as his patron.
One day in conversation about some icons in a Jerusalem church, he pointed out that there is almost a chiastic relationship between this story (which John also relates, Jn 18:16-27) and a post-resurrection story in the Gospel according to John.
The latter is the story of the grilled fist breakfast on the beach of the Galilean lake. The disciples, out fishing, see a figure on the shore which they then realize is Jesus. Jesus calls to them and invites them to share some fish he is cooking over a fire. As they are eating, he engages Peter in conversation:
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)
Peter’s three-fold denial is answered by Jesus’ three-fold commission to tend to the flock. The denial notwithstanding, Jesus affirms Peter’s on-going position as one of (some would say the chief of) his apostles, those he has sent into the world to continue his work. There is a lovely chiastic symmetry to the stories.
My new friend, the former Benedictine, told me that when he took his vows in the order an icon writer created an icon of Peter for him (not the icon illustrating this reflection). In the icon, Peter is wringing the rooster’s neck! In many ways, that simple bit of artistic license underscores for me the humanity of Peter and also illustrates the truth that Jesus’ forgiveness empowers us to overcome the past.
Most of us — probably all of us — have (or will) in one way or another denied Jesus. I’m confident that Jesus has already forgiven us (many times over) for those denials. Thinking of that icon, I believe Jesus has given us the power to “wring the neck” of the circumstances which may have led us to those denials. We may not be able to change the past, but through the forgiveness of Christ and the grace of God we can change the way the past influences the future.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.